Newspapers have been closed down, satellite broadcasters banned from operating, and journalists are arrested and held without trial. Iraq eight months after the country’s liberation from Saddam Hussein is starting to resemble Zimbabwe or Iran more than the liberal Utopia once promised by Bush and Blair.
Although three newspapers have previously been closed down carrying for editorials supportive of armed resistance to the US-led occupation, the banning since November 23 of the influential satellite channel Al-Arabiyya, for “encouraging violence and resistance” is being seen as a turning point in the post-Saddam era.
“Of course we are afraid that this is a sign of worse things to come in Iraq,” says Ali Al-Khateeb, a senior correspondent for Al-Arabiyya, the Dubai-based station which is Iraq’s most watched news channel.
The US-appointed Governing Council ordered Al Arabiyya to stop all its Iraqi operations after the channel showed a tape from Saddam Hussein on November 16th, and the head of Al-Arabiyya in Iraq has been told that he faces a year in prison if he violates the ban.
The mood at the Al-Arabiyya office in Baghdad is somber. Some of the finest television journalists in the Arab world sit around making tea and playing video games, while against one wall lie a pile of unused video cameras. No-body stirs when a bomb explodes in the distance with a dull thump.
“The Governing Council members have a real problem with how the media works. When we broadcast an opposing viewpoint they take it as a personal insult,” says Ali Al-Khateeb, a senior correspondent for Al-Arabiyya satellite channel.
“Although I don’t believe that the US was behind the ban although it couldn’t have happened without their approval,” says Wehad Yacoub, editor-in-chief of al-Arabiyya’s Baghdad office.
Only a week before the banning US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld had described al-Arabiya as "violently anti-coalition".
At the Baghdad offices of Al-Jazeera, the Qatar-based channel that shot to fame after showing tapes from Osama bin Laden, the outlook is scarely better.
21 journalists and staff from the channel have been arrested in 13 different incidents since April. Two al-Jazeera journalists have been held for months in prison, one was found innocent by an Iraqi court and released after a month, while the other remains in prison more than two months after being arrested for allegedly having links to the Iraqi resistance. Al Jazeera deny these accusations and say that the Governing Council is trying to punish the channel for coverage that is less than wholeheartedly supportive.
“The Governing Council have the same mindset as Saddam –” they want journalists to write only the good things,” says Abdel Haqq, head of Al-Jazeera’s Baghdad office, adding that members of the Council are regular guests on the channel.
“The ordinary people share the same attitude, in Najaf they call us Saddam’s Channel, while in the Sunni areas we are told that we are American stooges, but whatever they call us they all go home and watch al-Jazeera”
Journalists widely believe that the clampdown against the press is a reaction to the US’ continuing problems in trying to control Iraq.
“The US has now lost as many troops as it did in the first three years of Vietnam, this is the real problem,” explains Ak Khateeb. “It is not in the interests of the Coalition to have people saying that the situation is deteriorating. We are an easy target –” it’s easier them to bash us than to bash the resistance.”
“If the facts upset the US and the Governing Council that is their problem,” says Jawad Kathoum, a senior producer for Al-Arabiyya.
But if the US thinks that Al-Arabiyya is a problem then it should consider that one of the most popular channels in Iraq is Al-Manar –” a satellite channel run by Hizbollah, the Lebanese Shiite militia that fought the Israelis for fifteen years in Lebanon. The station broadcasts a steady stream of reports on Iraq intermingled with footage of fighting in Palestine –” as well as religious education programs and children’s television.
The station is particularly popular among the Shia who make up a majority in Iraq and who have so-far been largely grateful for the US invasion which deposed the zealously anti-Shia Saddam.
Despite its Islamic fundamentalist credentials the Al-Manar office is exotically furnished with a lavish selection of gold-painted furniture and erotic statuettes. The Al Manar reporters say that they are treated no differently from the other Arab broadcasters by US troops –” most are probably unaware that it is run by the Hizbollah who were described by Donald Rumsfeld as ‘The A-Team of Terrorists’.
“There are some problems. Often when we try to cover incidents security people come and confiscate cameras and equipment. For instance, one day I saw a US military policeman hit an old women with a baton at a demonstration in Abu Niwas Street in central Baghdad. I started to film but a US soldier saw me and took away the video tape.” says Ali, an Al-Manar cameraman.
Unlike other Arab channels Al-Manar reporters seem to enjoy widespread respect in Iraq, in part because the channel was forbidden from reporting from Iraq under Saddam Hussein –” a fact that today encourages Iraqis today to trust the channel.
“People like Al-Manar because their reporting shows both the good and the bad sides of the US occupation,” says Wissam Al-Trakhti, a 26-year old lawyer.
“We are an Islamic channel and we want to show the world a real picture of what’s happening in Iraq. For this reason Iraqi people are generally pleased to see us, and do everything they can to help us whether we are in Fallujah or Najaf,” says Bilad Dib, Al-Manar’s head of operations in Baghdad.
For the Iraqi people the clampdown on the media is just the latest example of American military actions failing live up to US promises made before the war.
In recent weeks unarmed demonstrators holding a pro-Saddam Hussein rally were shot by US troops, while an estimated 5,000 prisoners are being held without trial and without access to lawyers or their families. These measures seem to be have little effect -the resistance to the occupation, while not becoming noticeable more effective, is not showing any signs of dying down.
“Since closing down Al-Arabiyya nothing has changed in Iraq, “says Al-Khateeb. “The other channels and newspapers are reporting the same events as we did and there are still explosions everywhere.”